Brandon's Notepad

December 29, 2017

Ignatius’ Epistle To Polycarp

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Home > My Research > Christianity > Early Church Fathers > Ignatius’ Epistle To Polycarp


Synopsis

Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr of the early Church, wrote to Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, wherein he imparts wisdom regarding behavior proper for a bishop, married Christian couples, and Christian communities in general.

Authorship

Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, while imprisoned and in transport to Rome in about the year A.D. 108, wrote letters to several of the ancient Churches. He also wrote a personal letter to his friend and fellow bishop, Polycarp of Smyrna. Full authenticity of the contents of these letters is not generally accepted; however, the most egregious embellishments can be identified and removed using copies of the letters from different ages and sources. The original letters and contemporary copies have been lost to antiquity.

Resources

Two copies of this letter were used to produce the summary below. The English version provided the bulk of the material, and the Greek was used to gain clarity on specific points.

English: New Advent
Greek: TextExcavation

Also, the language search tools found at the Perseus Digital Library (Tufts University) came in quite handy for understanding the Greek.

Summary

The format of this letter is commensurate with Ignatius’ other epistles, though not identical. After the salutation and customary self-humiliation and praise of the recipient, The main topics of discourse are presented, of which this letter contains three. The first is a series of exhortations made to Polycarp, providing advice, counsel, and encouragement; this occupies the space of three-and-a-half chapters. After that, one chapter is dedicated to married couples within the Christian community and another to the duties of Christians in general. Finally, some specific instructions are given for Polycarp to carry out.

  • Salutation
  • Commendation
  • Exhortations
    • Keep a steady course
    • Maintain position in both flesh and spirit
    • Preserve unity
    • Model Godly forbearance
    • Lovingly support the faithful
    • Pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17)
    • Always seek understanding (continuous learning?)
    • Be watchful
    • Communicate
    • Bear the infirmities of all
    • Don’t just love good disciples, but humbly subdue the troublesome
    • There is no one solution to all problems
    • Big problems can be mitigated with consistent care
    • Always be “wise as a serpent, and harmless as a dove.” (Matt 10:16)
    • As flesh and spirit, you can deal with all evil: that is plainly visible and that which can only be revealed by God
    • Navigate well, that you and yours may reach God
    • Be sober, for eternal life is at stake
    • In all things may my soul be for yours, and my bonds also, which you have loved.
    • Don’t fear teachers of false doctrine (1 Tim 1:3, 1 Tim 6:3)
    • Stand firm despite relentless opposition
    • Bear all things…as you want God to bear with you
    • Grow in zeal
    • Weigh carefully the times
    • Look for Him who became like us and suffered for our sake
    • Protect widows from neglect
    • Permit nothing to be done without your consent just as you seek the approval of God in all you do
    • Assemble frequently (Mass?)
    • It is better that slaves submit out of glory of God than to be freed and become slaves to their own desires (c.f. 1 Tim 6:1-2)
  • Duties of Husbands and Wives
    • Flee from abuse and don’t remain silent about it
    • Women should be satisfied with their husbands out of love of the Lord (Eph 5:22)
    • Men should love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5:25)
    • If one can remain unmarried and pure without boasting or conceit, let him do so to the honor of God
    • Those who do marry should do so with the approval of the bishop, and thus according to God’s will, not for lust
  • Duties of the Christian Flock
    • Remain submissive to the bishop, presbyters, and deacons
    • Work together as servants of God
    • Please God, your general and employer, and do not desert him
    • Let your baptism, faith, love, and patience endure and protect you
    • Work, that you may be rewarded according to the value of your deeds
    • Be patient with one another as God is with you (Matt 6:19-21)
  • Instructions
    • Elect by solumn council a new bishop for Antioch
    • Correspond with adjacent Churches on my behalf
  • Commendations of Others
  • Farewell

Observations

Papal Primacy. In his salutatory remarks, Ignatius addresses Polycarp as one “who has, as his own bishop, God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Historically, there has been much debate about Ignatius’ understanding of the Church in terms of structure, his vision of the local bishop as the spiritual leader over presbyters (as opposed to a Congregationalist view), and whether or not he recognized (even the notion of) the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. One might interpret this phrase to mean that he did not, in fact, recognize the Roman Bishop as anything but perhaps a distant peer, and that a bishop must give an account to no man but answer only to God himself. In my assessment, this conclusion is both over-reaching and anachronistic. The primacy of the Pope is not an issue being addressed in the letter at all, and Ignatius’ statement should not be taken as a testamony as such. This debate belongs to a different era (beit AD 381, 484, 654, 736, 867, 1054, 1281, 1472, or 1517).

Upon This Rock. At the beginning of Chapter 1, Ignatius claims to have “obtained good proof that [Polycarp’s] mind is fixed in God as upon an immoveable rock (πετραν)”. This phrase calls to mind the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18, I tell you that you are Peter (Πέτρος) and upon this rock (πέτρα) I will build my Church.. No, Ignatius is (most likely) not alluding to Peter or the Papacy, but it is interesting that he describes Polycarp’s understanding of the faith in the same manner.

Subjunctive Mood. In the line from Chapter 1, “I entreat you…exhort all that they may be saved”, the verb for “saved” (σωζωνται) is in the subjunctive mood.

Sports Medicine. Like Paul, Ignatius likens the Christians to athletes (thrice in this letter alone) and to life as a race to be run with eternal salvation as the prize. He also notes that athletes are often injured, yet they still strive to win, that there is no one cure for all types of wounds, and that as athletes we must remain sober and ready.

Holy Battle Gear. Also like Paul (Eph 6:10-18), Ignatius speaks of putting on the armor of God (Chapter 6), complete with helmet (faith) and spear (love).

Good Works. Chapter 6 includes a line that states, “Let your works be the charge assigned to you, that you may receive a worthy recompense.” I found the Greek (τα δεποσιτα υμων τα εργα υμων, ινα τα ακκεπτα υμων αξια κομισησθε) and looked up each word, eventually coming up with “Where your work is stored, there your unbounded worth will be taken care of.” This sounded too similar to Matthew 6:19-21 to dismiss (to paraphrase: don’t store treasure on earth where it can perish, but in Heaven where it cannot be destroyed, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also). I settled on the amalgamation of “Work, that you may be rewarded according to the value of your deeds” for the summary above and added the reference to Matthew.


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